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 Tuesday, 8 October, 2002, 19:32 GMT 20:32 UK
Marconi chiefs feel heat of vengeance
Lord Weinstock
Lord Weinstock: "Must be turning in his grave"

They came to raise the dead and bury the living.

At Westminster Central Hall, centre for the Methodists, Marconi shareholders massed to grieve the fall of a corporate star.

Former Marconi chief executive Lord Simpson
Lord Simpson: Bogey man
And to punish the executives they deemed responsible for the firm's decline into stockmarket infamy.

"If it was up to me, you would have the directors dragged outside into the square and lynched," said retired engineer Mario Zornoza.

This was one company annual meeting where delegates were greeted not by publicists but security guards.

Not for shareholders the hall's side entrance, past offices for Sister Jane Middleton, and Reverend Dr Malcolm White, Prayer and Healing Ministry.

Lost fortunes

But if there was a prayer to be had on Tuesday, it was for the resurrection of the late Lord Weinstock, the entrepreneur who built GEC into a mighty, if undynamic, defence and electronics force.

It has been a particularly gruelling 12 months. I look forward to hanging up my boots."

Derek Bonham, chairman, Marconi

"He must be turning in his grave," shareholders said. Often.

The lord not magnified was his successor, Lord Simpson, under whose reign the company adopted the Marconi name, seized a new focus, on telecoms equipment, and earned a stockmarket value of 35bn.

And then lost all but 42m of it after a bungled profits warning sparked the company's unwinding.

Even at the firm's 2001 annual meeting, when Marconi shares were worth some 99p, Lord Simpson spoke of his "confidence" in the firm's future and his "commitment to deliver improving performance and increasing shareholder value".

He left the next month.

Marconi shares are now worth 1.55p.

Bogey men

On Tuesday, mere mention of Lord Simpson, or the four letter names of former finance director John Mayo, sparked hissing dissent.

Derek Bonham, chairman, Marconi
Derek Bonham: "Gruelling 12 months"

"If there is justice to be done, every penny they have received from this company should be returned," one shareholder, from the floor, told acting chairman Derek Bonham.

Even Mr Bonham himself, addressing the throng, distanced himself from the ghosts of Marconi past.

"It is to my regret that [Mr Mayo] pursued his claim to full financial entitlement" on his departure last year, Mr Bonham said to general approval.

"I greatly regret that I did not manage to get a better [severance] deal with Lord Simpson," Mr Bonham added, to shareholder glee.

Emboldened, he chanced a compliment to defuse protester Hazel Tyrrell: "Madam, what a lovely hat you are wearing."

It was an ill-fated sortie, which ended with Mr Bonham admitting to being "duly chastened".

"Soft words butter no parsnips," Ms Tyrrell muttered.

'Particularly gruelling'

Not the kind of meeting this that Mr Bonham, also head at Cadbury and Imperial Tobacco, was used to chairing.

This firm is a disgrace to the name of Guglielmo Marconi

Hazel Tyrrell, shareholder

"It has been a particularly gruelling 12 months," he said, seeking solace in his imminent exit from Marconi.

"I look forward to hanging up my boots."

No more shareholders then demanding, as on Tuesday, an immediate public apology from six directors.

No more protesters like Kichin Navani, 70, who last year added 14,000 to the fortune he had already lost in Marconi, and who branded Mr Bonham a "liar" and demanded he "leave the platform immediately".

Shareholder plea

Not that all delegates disparaged the chairman.

Many applauded a deal struck last month with banks which, while leaving original shareholders controlling some 0.5% of Marconi, at least spared the company from being torn apart by its creditors.

Guglielmo Marconi
Guglielmo Marconi: Turning in his grave?

Many cheered Mr Bonham's assessment that the firm's debt mountain had been slashed, and operating costs decimated.

One speaker, a Mr Simons who had suffered a "horrible" Marconi loss, brimmed with praise.

"Will you stay on?" Mr Simons pleaded, leaving Mr Bonham to clutch at his other chairmanships.

"I have responsibilities to other shareholders as well," Mr Bonham replied, with audible relief.


It will indeed be a different face who chairs Marconi's 2003 annual meeting - assuming there is one - and faces the likes of Messrs Zornoza and Navani.

Marconi expanded very quickly, and the economy turned against it

Reverend Dr Malcolm White

It will be a different executive who risks the wrath of Ms Tyrrell.

"This firm is a disgrace to the name of Guglielmo Marconi," she said after the meeting, referring to the telecoms pioneer.

"He must be turning in his grave."

Spiritual solution?

If Reverend Dr Malcolm White, at the Prayer and Healing Ministry office, knew, he was not letting on.

What he could offer was a financial assessment of the firm's ills.

"Marconi expanded very quickly, and the economy turned against it," he told BBC News Online from the calm of his office.

"If the economy hadn't, well, the chief executive might have gone down as a genius."

Those more interested in Dr White's spiritual guidance might like to know that Westminster City Hall might, after all, provide a solution to their ills.

"Every Thursday, healing meeting and laying on of hands."

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